The Recession’s ‘Silent Mental Health Epidemic’
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The Fiscal Times
September 23, 2011

Mark Altbier hasn’t slept through the night once since the printing company that employed him for 18 years announced early last spring it would be shuttering its plant in May.  Now, six months later, Altbier, 62, continues to look for work at a printing company but accepts that he may never find another  job again in that industry.  “I can’t change the 40 years that happened.  Printing’s what I know,” Altbier explained in a recent interview.  “But I also realize now that it’s a reality that no matter what I do, I won’t have what I had before and will have to take a tremendous pay cut if I’m lucky enough to get any job, and that’s depressing….I’ve never felt that way before.” 

As President Obama and Republican leaders argue over the best way to reduce  9.1 percent unemployment and revive a near-flat-lining economy, little attention has been paid to the widespread emotional and psychological damage caused by long-term unemployment – and the consequential drain  it is having  on government resources and workforce productivity.

With an estimated three-quarters of the 14 million unemployed Americans out of work for more than six months and fully half out of work for more than two years,  many jobless Americans are feeling a sense of despair and hopelessness not seen since the Great Depression, experts say.

A recently published comprehensive study on long-term unemployed by Rutgers University’s John J.  Heldrich Center for Workforce Development  found that the vast majority of unemployed workers experienced stress in their relationships with family and friends and that at least  11 percent reported seeking  professional help for their depression within the past 12 months. One in two of the respondents in the two-year  national  study  said they began avoiding friends and associates out of a sense of shame and embarrassment – a self-imposed isolation that hurt their ability to network to find work.

Many of these unemployed Americans can’t afford to seek professional  help  because they lost their employer-provided health care insurance when they were laid off.  At the same time, federal, state and local governments have cut back  on spending for mental health clinics and outreach in response to budget crises spawned by the bad economy.

As bleak as things are for many of the unemployed, it could get even worse if Medicaid funding of mental health services is put  on the chopping block this fall, as a congressional “Super Committee” hunts for spending cuts to help reduce the federal budget deficit. Medicaid is the most important source of funding of public mental health services for young people and adults, accounting for nearly half of state mental health budgets, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

This perfect storm  of  rampant emotional problems among the unemployed and the  government’s diminished ability to provide assistance has created “a silent mental health epidemic,” according to Carl Van Horn, a professor of public policy and economics at Rutgers and head of the Heldrich Center.

“Losing a job is more than just a financial crisis for people,” said Van Horn.  “It creates numerous other damage, stress, anxiety, substance abuse, fights and conflicts in the family and feelings of embarrassment and depression.”

Altbier said he had always been the breadwinner in his family, but now his wife’s modest government contract  work, his unemployment checks, and a dwindling savings account are helping the couple keep up with their mortgage and COBRA health care payments with little left over at the end of each month.   Arguments between Altbier and his wife over finances and his joblessness have become commonplace in their suburban Silver Spring, Md., home. He has applied for retail sales associate jobs at places like Best Buy and Sears, but he hasn’t heard back.

“It’s sad, it’s unnerving, and I’m not quite sure how to handle everything,” Altbier said.  “I can’t tell you when and how it’s going to end.”

"I’ve never felt such a feeling of
hopelessness. You think you did
something wrong – it’s my fault.
You’re going to live in a dumpster.”

A 55-year-old former internet technology official for a Washington-area financial service company said he wasn’t worried at first after losing his $200,000-a-year job three years ago because he was confident he could  land a  contract to tide him over until he found another full-time job. But the former official, who would only consent to be identified by his first name, Tom, because of the stigma that society and employers attach to  being unemployed, said he began to panic when the contract fell through, the economy kept flattening, and the competition for the few available jobs became extremely stiff.

“It was very, very bumpy,” he recalled recently. “There were some very depressing periods in there. I’ve never felt such a feeling of hopelessness. You think you did something wrong – it’s my fault. You’re going to live in a dumpster.”

Tom said he spent a lot of time that first fall and winter  alone in his house brooding and watching television . Probably the low point was when his mother asked him, “What did you do wrong?” Finally, he banded together with other unemployed people to compare notes on their lives and develop strategies for seeking work.  Now he’s doing volunteer work while he continues his job search.